The United States is suffering from an acute lack of trust—and the scientific community is not spared from the consequences of this national mood. Since the pandemic began, people have rejected the views of scientists, epidemiologists, and medical doctors on the risks of the virus, the efficacy of masks and social distancing, and the effectiveness of potential treatments.
Sometimes distrust can result from a lack of understanding about the nature and processes of science. Alan Leshner explained in a recent edition of Issues in Science and Technology, “there typically is some uncertainty in scientific evidence, and there are very few situations where all scientists agree about what the data are showing or how the data should be interpreted.”
“Scientists understand that there can be scientific consensus behind the recommendations they make to the public in spite of some uncertainty and disagreement—but that can be disquieting to nonscientists.” Additionally, when scientific theories evolve, or get replaced upon discovering new information, scientists understand this is a normal part of the process while the public may consider it a failure, or worse, a betrayal of trust.
There is hope, however. Leshner says that public levels of trust in science remain high, despite an increase in instances of people “ignoring, distorting, or denying recommendations from the scientific community.” He also points out there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that when encouraging people to trust the science, public engagement is more impactful than any attempt to simply “educate” people.
Engagement requires teaching, but also listening. Collaboration, not lecturing. It works best in small groups, tailored to the knowledge, values, priorities, and location of the audience. It also requires coming to an agreement on what constitutes fact-based scientific evidence, and what frameworks should be used to determine what is known, and help regulators, lawmakers, and judges make decisions consistently and with the best information available.
Healing the erosion of trust in our country is not just in the information—it’s in the delivery.